In mid-October, I attended the GreenTown Highland Park (Illinois) Conference. I was invited to give a presentation about Food Scraps Composting Trends. GreenTown: The Future of Community, is a conference series designed to help create sustainable communities. It is coproduced by Seven Generations Ahead, a nonprofit whose mission is to build healthy, sustainable communities, and a5, a Chicago-based marketing and communications firm. Essentially, GreenTown selects a community to host the conference, and then works closely with elected officials, city managers, public works directors, planners and many others to highlight initiatives and have speakers address challenges these communities are facing related to sustainable development.
The day before the main event, GreenTown held a half-day workshop titled “Advancing Commercial Food Scrap Collection in the Chicago Area.” Only several years ago, the Chicago region (“Chicagoland”) didn’t have any facilities of scale permitted to compost food waste streams. A state law passed in 2009, SB99, changed the regulatory landscape in Illinois, essentially exempting facilities that accept food waste for composting from pollution control requirements, and regulating them more like landscape waste composting sites. In short, SB99 paved the way for facilities to receive food scraps.
The workshop, with close to a 100 people in attendance, highlighted commercial and institutional food scraps composting activity in Chicagoland, featuring a grocery chain, hauler, a university and several facility operators, as well as speakers with experience operating food scraps diversion programs in other communities. The consensus among the local players was that the biggest obstacle to program expansion was insufficient density on collection routes, i.e., not enough participants.
I’ll get back to that in a minute. The keynote speaker the next day was Mark Fenton, a public health, planning and transportation consultant, and host of the PBS television show “America’s Walking.” And as it turns out, he is also a huge advocate for integrated solutions to anchor sustainable communities (see last month’s editorial). I have been to many, many conferences, and Mark Fenton was one of the most articulate, engaging and inspiring speakers I have ever heard. BioCycle plans to interview him for an upcoming Community Sustainability feature. Fenton’s main messages focus on the twin epidemics of physical inactivity and poor nutrition — two of the three big factors, along with tobacco, driving astronomical health care costs — and how to plan and alter communities to make it inviting and engaging to adopt healthier lifestyles. Much of the discussion focused on creating livable communities where bicycle and walking paths connect to areas of commerce, transit, schools and recreational areas, as well as integrating residential and commercial districts.
There were a lot of ideas and practices that related directly to the BioCycle Community. But the one that stuck with me most was Fenton’s comment about roadway paint. He was making the point that bicycle lanes can be created by simply painting the lines differently on the street. For example, a 4-lane highway through town can be changed to one lane in each direction, with a “communal” center turning lane, and wide bike lanes along the curbs. Essentially, all it takes are buckets of paint.
What I heard in that message is that change doesn’t have to be complicated or costly. So for the new food scraps diversion programs in Chicagoland, perhaps the answer to route density challenges lies in buckets as well. Not buckets of paint, of course, but buckets (and carts) for food scraps collection. Create the opportunity and more food waste generators can participate and experience the advantages, thus increasing the tonnages set out and the density of the route. It is very exciting when change can start with a bucket.